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LEARNING THAI MASSAGE IN THAILAND

Overview

If you claim to have been to Thailand but never tried (or never heard of) the Thai massage, are you sure you’ve been to Thailand? The first time I tried it, I was stupefied. Never had I experienced anything like that before. And I had tried Balinese massage, Chinese massage and some other generic massages they give at spas. But nothing could beat what I had in Thailand. Now it’s a must-do activity every time I find myself in the Land of Smiles. In fact, I loved it so much that in 2012, I decided to go to Bangkok just to take the massage course.

But what is Thai massage and how is it different from other types of massages?

What is Thai Massage?

For a first-timer, you’d probably be as surprised as I was. First of all, there are no massage tables — only mats or thin mattresses on the floor. This may seem peculiar in the beginning, but you’ll soon understand why. Secondly, you go on the mat fully clothed (they usually provide a pair of loose cotton pants and shirt for you to change into).

And after that, the adventure begins.

A Thai massage parlor typically advertises a variety of treatments offered, from coconut oil massage to aloe vera, to aromatherapy, to herbal compress. These are all variations of the classic Thai massage, created to suit customers’ different needs and preferences.

The classic Thai massage does not use oil or any other ointment, which is why you don’t have to be undressed. Instead, they use pressure points, much like acupressure, but not quite. And what I like most is that the pressure used is usually strong, unless you specify otherwise. I hate it when I go to a massage parlor expecting some serious kneading only to find that the masseur/masseuse simply rubs oil all over my body (VERY gently and sloooowly) and call it a massage. If I wanted caressing, I could go to a different kind of parlor, thank you very much.

The reason that they can give strong pressure is that they don’t only use their hands on you, but also their forearms, elbows, knees, and feet. Okay, it doesn’t sound very hygienic, but it’s going to make you feel so good that you won’t care anymore. And in any case, you won’t be wearing your own clothes anyway, so don’t worry about them getting dirty.

A Thai woman giving Thai massage

Now you understand why they do it on the floor. This is to allow a wider range of motion, both for you, and the person giving the massage, because you won’t be lying on your back or stomach the whole time. Thai massage is also jokingly called “lazy yoga”, because sometimes it does feel like assisted yoga. They stretch you and twist your body and push and pull you, without you having to do any work. At the end of the massage, you’d feel so light and refreshed as though you just completed an hour-long yoga session.

Even if you prefer the more relaxing kind of massage, I still think you should give this a try, just for the unique experience.

History

Thai massage is believed to have originated in India in the time of the Buddha some 2,500 years ago. It then made its way to Thailand, where for centuries, it was practiced by monks as a component of Thai medicine. However, a lot of the knowledge and information about Thai massage were lost during the destruction of Ayutthaya by the Burmese in 1767. The only ones that survived were the ones inscribed on stone tablets, which are now kept at the Wat Po temple in Bangkok.

stone statue doing massge
Even the stone statue in Wat Po depicts the massage in progress. It’s not Kamasutra, guys! Don’t start getting funny ideas ;-P

Health Benefits of Thai Massage

Thai massage invigorates you as much as it relaxes you. It has been said to have many positive effects on the mind, body, and spirit:

  • Improves relaxation and reduces stress
  • Relaxes the muscles and brings a release of muscular pain
  • Improves blood circulation
  • Improves posture
  • Increases flexibility of the muscles
  • Increases energy
  • Heightens awareness and aligns your chakra, whatever that means
  • Improves mental well-being
  • Improves nervous system
  • Helps your digestion after all the tom yum and green curry

Apparently, Thai massage also energizes the giver (well, it gives them a good workout, that’s for sure), so it benefits both parties.

Learning Thai Massage in Thailand

I’m sure it’s possible to learn Thai massage outside of Thailand. A quick Google search will show you that there are many classes across Europe and the US. But if you want to have the best and most authentic experience, I think there’s no better choice than doing it in its country of origin. As for me, it gave me the best excuse to travel to my favorite country in the world!

Where to Go

Chiang Mai in the north is the center of Thai massage, and thus has the biggest choice of schools. But there are many around Bangkok as well, or if you like being near the beach, you can go to Koh Phangan, Koh Samui or Phuket.

How Much Does It Cost?

Depending on where you go, and whether you’re taking group lessons or private ones, a 30-hour introductory course should cost you around THB 8,000 – THB 12,000. Typically the 30 hours are spread into 5 days, although if you’re short on time, this can be negotiated with your instructor. Some schools even offer 1-day classes, costing about THB 2,500. Classes and cost of living are generally cheaper in Chiang Mai than in the other places mentioned above.

Wat Po Massage School

Wat Phra Chetuphon (better known as Wat Po) is one of the largest temples in Bangkok and is famed for its giant reclining Buddha. The temple had a prominent role in the history of Thai massage. During the great restoration, it became the center where knowledge of Thai Traditional Medicine and Massage was gathered from ancestors and passed on to younger generations. The medical and massage school was opened in 1955. It was the first Thai medical school that was approved by the Thai Ministry of Education.

Watpo massage school signage

Now, the Wat Po Massage School is no longer located inside the famous temple itself, but in a separate building close by. The courses offered include:

  • General Thai Massage
  • Foot Massage
  • Advanced Medical Thai Massage
  • Oil Massage and Aromatherapy
  • Infant and Child Massage
  • Woman Healthcare Massage
  • Ascetic Self-Stretching
  • Facial Massage
  • Basic Body Treatments
  • Professional Thai Massage for Health
  • Professional Thai Massage for Therapy

Although the courses are more expensive than the ones you can find in Chiang Mai for example, I chose to study here because of its long-standing reputation. Having a certificate from this school allows you to practice as a masseuse anywhere in the country (gotta be prepared, you know, in case I ever decide to move here and start a massage business as a side hustle).

General Thai Massage

The General Thai Massage is the most basic 30-hour course offered in Wat Po massage school. It takes 5 days to complete, and you can start on any day of the week except Sunday. By the end of the course, you should be able to give a 1-hour (or 2-hour, if you do it slowly) full-body massage. This is the prerequisite for all the other courses.

Registration

Thai massage course registration form at Wat Po massage school

Registration is pretty straightforward. You just need to go to the school reception and fill up the application form. I did this the day before starting my class, but I think it’s also possible to do it on the same day if you come early. Please bring along a copy of your passport, 3 passport photos (2″ x 2″) and the course fee of THB 12,000 (it used to be less than THB 10,000 when I joined) that is payable by cash, credit card or money transfer.

Tip: There’s a photo studio right next door where you could take new passport photos. They will tweak your photos a little to give you smoother skin, some blusher, lipstick and eyeliner. Not sure if this is a thing in Thailand, but I quite liked the result. 😀

After that, you will be given your learning kit, which consists of a bag, a pen and illustrated coursebooks. I was already very excited to start my class.

A briefcase and coursebooks

The Class

Classes start at 9 am and end at 4 pm. Come early on your first day because they will need to show you to your assigned massage hall and introduce you to your instructor and group members. The ratio of instructor to students was 1:6 during my time.

In a typical one-hour massage session, the ‘patient’, i.e. the person receiving the massage will start by lying on their back. After that, they will lie on their sides. There are 5 different positions in total, and each day is dedicated to learning each one of them. The best part of this course is that you get to take turns giving and receiving massages. So, apart from learning, you also get at least three hours of massage for free every day!

A group of people giving and receiving massages

At around noon, you’ll get an hour break. You’re free to go out of the school building, but most students and instructors prefer going to the open-air dining hall on the top floor, where you can find good Thai food. I can’t remember if the meals were included in the package or if I had to pay for them. But I remember going there every day to have my lunch, so I’m pretty sure that if I had to pay at all, it must have been very cheap. As a bonus, you get to dine with an amazing view of the Chao Phraya and surrounding temples. (Don’t worry, there’s a roof to provide shade, so you can rest assured that you will be protected from the unforgiving Thai heat.)

Wat Po Thai massage class for foreigners

You’ll learn very quickly that giving a massage is hard work, and even more so if your partner is bigger than you. Your body will ache after the first day, especially your thumbs as you will be using them a lot.

Completion

On the fifth day, after lunch, you will need to take the final exam before getting your certificate. This is when you have to demonstrate all the steps you have learned since day 1. You must not skip any and you must do them in the correct sequence.

By this time, you should already have made friends with the other students. Although I don’t think the examiner was very strict in evaluating us, we still helped each other out by discreetly giving hints when any of us forgot the steps. It made us feel like being in school all over again, cheating during the exam.

A group of students and instructor
With my group members and instructor. They were all locals.

After that, we were given our certificates and took a group photo. Then, we went our separate ways. I was rather sad about it, to be honest. We barely talked to each other during class (in my case, it was due to language barrier), but there is a strange kind of intimacy when a group of people takes turns massaging each other for five days. Like some sort of non-sexual orgy.

The only complaint I had about the course was that the local students got to attend a theory class despite having to pay only a fraction of what international students did. I would have been willing to pay more to learn the theory, but sadly, this was not an option. It made me wonder if there were some secrets to Thai massage that they were trying to keep within the Thai community. But I think the more logical reason was a lack of English-speaking teachers.

Me holding my Thai massage certificate Certificate from Wat Po Massage School

Foot Massage

A year later, I came back to Bangkok to take the Foot Massage course. Like the General Thai Massage course, this one also took 5 days to complete, ending with an exam. But unlike the former, it was conducted in a much smaller room, with much fewer students.

A group of people giving foot massages
Please excuse all the picture collages. They were trendy back then.

A group of people giving Thai foot massage

In the Foot Massage course, we had to work on the patient’s feet, legs and shoulders, but with more focus on the feet, obviously. There were more props too — we had to use towels, lotion and reflexology sticks (all included in our learning kit), and we sat on massage chairs instead of on the floor. However, the foot massage didn’t have as many steps to learn as the General Thai Massage, so instead of learning something new every day, the classes felt a little repetitive after a while.

This time around, the nationalities of the students in my group were more varied. There was one student from China, three from Japan and several more from France. Thus, the class was livelier because everybody spoke English. I even went celebrating with the Japanese girls on Khao San Road after finishing the course. But for some reason, I think I still enjoyed the previous course more.

Thai foot massage certificate Group of students posing with certificates

How about you? Have you tried Thai massage before? Did you like it? Would you like to learn Thai massage? Comment below.

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